If Jane Eyre is not the greatest of the Great Books with a permanent position on required-reading lists, it may be the most frequently filmed: At least 10 cinematic versions of the story have been made dating back to the dawn of the silent era — more, if you count made-for-TV adaptations and loose glosses such as Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie.
Considering the glut of Jane Eyres available, there may be no more compelling reason for this new version of the story — directed by Cary Fukunaga and starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender — than timing. In 1996, when Franco Zeffirelli had the last big-screen go at Charlotte Brontë's novel, the Merchant Ivory era of prestige period-pic catnip for Academy voters and AP English students was just past its peak; 15 years later, if there's anything hotter in Hollywood than dull British respectability, it's gothic romances about teen girls.
The moment may be right to cash in on Jane Eyre's blend of girl-to-woman rites of passage, supernatural/psychological paranoia, tragic love, and English accents, but Fukunaga's film is anything but trendy. Rather than Twilight-izing a classic tale — as Catherine Hardwicke appears to have done with Red Riding Hood, which also opens this week — Fukunaga has made his Jane Eyre an intimate, thoughtful epic, anchored by strong lead performances and the gorgeous, moody 100-shades-of-gray cinematography of Adriano Goldman.
Fukunaga (whose only previous feature is the 2009 Sundance Prize-winning Sin Nombre) fragments the narrative, introducing us to Jane (Wasikowska) as a young woman run ragged, fleeing an unspecified threat. She is taken in by young clergyman St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and nursed back to health by his sisters; from there, she flashes back to her beginnings. Setting up Jane's tale as a mystery — what was she running from, and why? — Fukunaga skips back and forth across years at the speed of memory. This lends an urgency to character-driven vignettes that demonstrate how Jane's identity has been shaped through hardships: the petty cruelty and eventual abandonment by her aunt (Sally Hawkins), Jane's guardian after her parents die; the cherished female friend who dies in her arms at charity school; and, finally, the loneliness of life as governess to Adele, a French orphan who lives in a spooky country house alone but for servants and occasional visits from her ostensible caretaker, the mysterious Mr. Rochester (Fassbender).
It's in the latter phase that Jane longingly states what Fukunaga and screenwriter Moira Buffini have isolated as one of the story's key themes: "I wish a woman could have action in her life, like a man." In her station, the best she can hope for is action through a man — and so when Rochester begins calling her to join him for fireside chats, it upends Jane's world. Fukunaga never overplays Jane's sexual awakening, allowing it instead to become evident through her restless distraction. Even after a real romance with Rochester begins, Jane is ever conscious of the social strata and years that separate her and her beloved; their union feels "unreal," every moment of bliss tinged with paranoia. (The brilliantly evocative sound design deepens the sense of the unknown lurking in every scene, from wind through a chimney to thunder rumbling under a first kiss.)
Jane Eyre hits its glorious gothic peak with Jane in flight from that romance — alone in a storm in a deserted field, the pain of having opened her heart only to have it broken twinned with literal sickness resulting from "exposure." Though she has hit rock bottom, it's this "action" that will ultimately lead Jane to what she's been looking for. Even as it romanticizes agony, Fukunaga's Jane Eyre plays as a correction to the Twilight series — in which a teenage girl idolizes mystically powerful boys — arguing that love, in its perfect state, is a meeting between equals. Using Brontë's text as the basis for an inquiry into free will versus servitude, Fukunaga mounts a subtly shaded, yet emotionally devastating examination of what it really means to choose one's own way.